Hostname: page-component-8448b6f56d-sxzjt Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-04-19T06:44:38.062Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

The Head of the Crafty Serpent

Missionary Grammars and Bilingual Dictionaries in African and Caribbean Countries

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 April 2024

Servanne Woodward*
Wichita State University


A comparison of African grammars written in French, and bilingual Franco-African or Franco-Caribbean dictionaries, allows us to discern a common myth concerning “family” ties between French and African Languages.

Missionaries consider two means of conversion: by the introduction of the God-Word to his children, which predetermines the foreign society to be encountered; the other demands an ethno- graphic study (to discover the meaning of language) in oral societies (African, Caribbean) to whom an alphabetical language is superimposed (with Latin characters). This effort of transcription presupposes the harmonious compatibility of all oral languages with French. Thus the missionaries breathe the Word and transcendence into the colonies in order to recover in “Word incarnate”, instrument and symbol for the conversion process. (The theologian would speak here of the “verticality of transcendence”.) But the missionary enterprise meets with the resistances of written language and of foreign societies endowed with complex structures and syntaxes. Thus, the so-called “verticality” crumbles along with missionary hopes, resulting in a trite approximate translation which could be characterized as “horizontal”.

Research Article
Copyright © 1990 Fédération Internationale des Sociétés de Philosophie / International Federation of Philosophical Societies (FISP)

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 Fernardo Ainsa develops a similar point in "The Invention of America", Di ogenes, no. 145, 1989, p. 101; p. 105, note 8.

2 It is the case for Kobès, Grammaire de la langue volofe, Saint-Joseph de Ngasobil, Imprimerie de la Mission, 1869; 1872; 1923 augmented, and of Karl Ed ward Laman, Dictionnaire kikongo-français avec une étude phonétique décrivant les dialectes les plus importants de la langue dite kikongo, Brussels, 1936; Ridewood, NJ, The Gregg Press Inc., 1964.

3 Kobès, ibid., p. 11.

4 Kobès, ibid., p. 8, speaks of "graves défauts".

5 Baron Roger, Recherches philosophiques sur la langue ouolofe suivie d'un vocabulaire abrégé français-ouolof, Micro-Éditions de l'Institut National des Civili sations orientales, Archives Africaines, Série V, Paris, Librairie Orientale de Dondey-Dupré Père et Fils, 1829, p. 48.

6 Roger, ibid., p. 9.

7 Roger, ibid., p. 20.

8 Kobès, op. cit., p. 9.

9 Kobès, ibid., p. 8.

10 Roger, op. cit., p. 139.

11 Sauvant, Manuel Bambara, Alger, Maison Carrée, Imprimeries des Missions d'Afrique, 1942.

12 Laman, op. cit., "Introduction".

13 Laman, op. cit., p. X.

14 Ménard, Grammaire kirundi, Alger, Maison Carrée, Imprimeries des Missions d'Afrique 1908, p. V.

15 Breton, Petit catéchisme ou sommaire des trois premières parties de la doctrine chrétienne traduit du français, en la langue des Caraibes insulaires, suivi d'un dic tionnaire caraïbe-français, Auxerre, Gilles Bouquet, Imprimeur ordinaire du Roy, 1664.

16 Breton, ibid., p. 8.

17 Roger, op. cit., p. 42-43.

18 Roger, ibid, p. 56.

19 Breton, op. cit., p. 8.

20 Breton, ibid., There are only a few pages numbered in the introductions to the various parts of the book.

21 Laman, op. cit., p. X.

22 Roger, op. cit., p. 126-27.

23 Roger, ibid., p. 126.

24 Ménard, op.cit., p. 6.

25 Kobès, op. cit., p. VI.

26 Kobès, ibid., no page number.

27 Kobès, ibid., p. 346.

28 Em. Jenniges, Dictionnaire français-kiluba exposant le vocabulaire de la lan gue kiluba telle qu'elle se parle au Katangua, publié par le ministère des colonies de Belgique, Brussels, Spineux & Cie, 1909.

29 Breton, op. cit., p. 11.

30 Sauvant, op. cit., p. 43.

31 Riebstein, Vocabuiaire de la langue ewe: I. ewe-français, Rome, Imprimerie de la Sodalité de S. Pierre Claver, 1923.

32 Sauvant, op. cit., p. 53.

33 Sauvant, ibid., p. 61.

34 Kobès, op. cit., p. 349.

35 Kobès, ibid., p. 346, (my italics).

36 Ménard, op. cit., p. 6.

37 Ménard, ibid., p. 30.

38 Roger, op. cit., p. 14.

39 Karl Edward Laman, The Musical Accent or Intonation in the Kongo Lan guage, Stockholm, 1922. He refers to it in his Dictionnaire Kikongo-Français by the letters MA.

40 Ménard, op. cit., p. 15.

41 Roger, op. cit., p. 30.

42 Breton, op. cit., p. 26.

43 Breton, ibid.

44 Breton, ibid..

45 Kobès, op. cit., p. 351, 8.

46 Ménard, op. cit., p. XII.

47 Roger, op. cit., p. 23.

48 Kobès, op. cit., p. 352, 1.

49 Kobès, ibid., p. IV.

50 Ménard, op. cit., p. XI, (my italics).

51 Ménard, ibid., p. XI, (my italics).

52 Roger, op. cit., p. 11.

53 Roger, ibid., p. 126.

54 Roger, ibid., p. 11.

55 Roger, ibid., p. 125.

56 Roger, ibid., p. 140.

57 Roger, ibid., p. 11.

58 Breton, op. cit., p. 7.

59 Kobès, op. cit., p. III.

60 Ménard, op. cit., p. VI, (my italics).

61 Roger, op. cit., p. 152-53.

62 Vincent Crapanzano, "Preface" to Maurice Leenhardt, Do Kamo: Person and Myth in the Melanesian World, Trans. Basia Miller Gulati, Chicago, The Universi ty of Chicago Press, 1979, p. IX, quoting James Clifford.

63 Crapanzano, ibid., p. XI, quoting Leenhardt's article on translating the New Testament.

64 Crapanzano, ibid., p. XXV.

65 Crapanzano, ibid., p. XXIV.

66 Brossard, Océan des Français: Tahiti, le chant polynésien, vol. 1, Paris, Édi tions France-Empire, 1962.

67 Brossard, ibid, vol. 2, p. 253.